Jeremy Bentham Could Do With A Hug

altruism

Hello and welcome to this year’s gazillionth bank holiday Monday!  I hope that you’ve got some lovely activities planned.

Altruism is a very tricky business, and lots of people don’t really believe that it exists.  The philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that humans exist to maximise their own pleasure and minimise their own pain, and that supposedly selfless acts are nothing more than our attempts to feel good via other people’s gratitude, social status, smugness, etc.  (Does anyone else get the feeling that poor Jeremy hasn’t had a lot of love?  Someone give him a cuddle.)

Bentham’s bleak assertion may not sit well with some of us, but it actually taps into something that we’ve all experienced in some way.  We all know the phrase “nice guys finish last”, and that’s a pretty fair summary of how we feel about unrewarded kindness: it’s not fair, and if it’s not fair, why should we bother?

Firstly, life is not fair, and we already know that.  We’re working within an unfair system where hard work is not always rewarded with promotion, love is not always requited and people don’t always say thank you when you hold a door open for them.  Therefore, choosing how to treat others based on what’s ‘fair’ is arbitrary and a bit useless, and deciding whether or not to perform a selfless act based on the injustice of the world is ridiculous.  “I will not help that small child get safely out of the path of that speeding car, because last week a child just like him bashed into my knees at the supermarket.  Fair’s fair.”  Fair is stupid, so forget about it.

Secondly, if you’re that fussed about getting rewarded in the first place, then you’re not being altruistic.  That’s not a criticism of you personally, by the way: after all, who doesn’t like to be rewarded?  Altruism is essentially being kind, generous etc. without any notion of reward: a truly altruistic act is performed by someone who does not even think about the pay off, let alone seek it.  This is sometimes difficult to imagine, and it can get very complicated when we have the best of intentions: making some we love feel better when they’re sad isn’t even altruistic, because their happiness makes us feel happy, because we love them.  Aren’t we selfish gits?

So it may not be real selflessness, and it may be that altruism doesn’t exist at all, but being kind and generous without requiring anything in return is very important.  This is partly because we all have systems of morals, and the one thing that just about every religion in the world can agree on is that being kind to people is important, but also because it means that we can be proud of who we are and how we behave.

Let’s be honest: showing someone love, kindness, sympathy and support can be very demanding, and if the gesture is either refused or ignored we end up feeling foolish.  I don’t know about you, but one thing I hate is being made to feel like an idiot (largely because I can do it just fine by myself without any help from others, thank you).  But showing someone love does not make you an idiot: it makes them the idiot if they don’t appreciate it.  And why would you want gratitude from an idiot?

If you’re still feeling a bit under-appreciated, I could always make you some biscuits.  How’s that?

Have a spectacular Monday.

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